Category Archives: Natural World

Cicadas: Mathematicians of the Insect World

800px-Magicicada_species

Source: Wikimedia Commons (Author: Bruce Marlin)

Cicadas are coming to the East Coast this year. This year marks the end of the 17-year life-cycle for this particular population of cicadas. Periodical cicadas (Magicicada septendecim) spend most of their lives underground sucking fluids from roots, but emerge after 13 or 17 years (depending on the population) to mate and then die.

What does this have to do with math?

13 and 17 are both prime numbers, and therefore cannot be divided evenly by any other numbers (besides 1 and themselves). Researchers believe that prime number life-cycles help the periodical cicadas avoid predators and parasites. For example, a cicada with a 17-year cycle and a parasite with a two-year cycle would meet only twice in a century (year 34 and year 68). A 17-year cicada would only meet a 5-year parasite once in a century, year 85 (5 x 17). Also, the prime number cycles keep different populations from meeting and interbreeding. Since the life-cycle is determined by genes, interbreeding between 13-year and 17-year cicada populations would throw off their clockwork cycle.

How do the cicadas know when to emerge? They count, of course. Cicadas feed on the roots of trees that flower every year. Scientists at University of California-Davis were able to make some cicadas hatch a year early by transplanting them onto potted trees and forcing the trees to flower twice in one year.

Read more at:

Science News for Kids: Prime Time for Cicadas

The Baltimore Sun: Mathematicians explore cicada’s mysterious link with primes